Prosecutors and defense attorneys will present closing arguments Tuesday in the sentencing trial of the Parkland school shooter, the last opportunity to make their case before the jury which will help decide whether the gunman is sentenced to death, or life in prison.
The imminent conclusion of the monthslong trial comes almost a year after Nikolas Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the February 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed.
Jury deliberations are expected to begin Wednesday, during which time jurors will be sequestered, per Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.
Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, have argued Cruz’s decision to commit the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school was premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense has suggested, related to any mental disorders or developmental delays.
The state completed its rebuttal last week, which included video in which Cruz told clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Denney he chose to carry out the shooting on Valentine’s Day because he “felt like no one loved me, and I didn’t like Valentine’s Day and I wanted to ruin it for everyone.”
Denney, who spent more than 400 hours with the gunman, testified for the prosecution he concluded Cruz has borderline personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder, but did not meet the criteria for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as the defense has contended.
When read the list of names of the 17 people killed and asked if fetal alcohol spectrum disorder explained their murders, Denney responded “no” each time.
The defense, in seeking to present the jury with mitigating circumstances – reasons why Cruz should not be sentenced to death but to life in prison without the possibility of parole – has offered evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school, including being born to a woman who abused drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with Cruz.
If they choose to recommend a death sentence, the jurors must be unanimous, or Cruz will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury does recommend death, the final decision rests with Judge Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
The lengthy trial – jury selection began six months ago, in early April – has seen prosecutors and defense attorneys present evidence of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances, reasons Cruz should or should not be put to death.
Prosecutors have argued Cruz was “cold, calculative, manipulative and deadly” in carrying out the attack, which lead prosecutor Michael Satz called “planned” and “systematic” in his opening statement in July. The state pointed to seven aggravating factors, he said, including the fact the killings were “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.”
“These aggravating factors far outweigh any mitigating circumstances,” Satz said, “anything about the defendant’s background, anything about his childhood, anything about his schooling, anything about his mental health, anything about his therapy, anything about his care.”
Underscoring their argument, prosecutors presented evidence showing the gunman spent months searching online for information about mass shootings and left behind social media comments sharing his express desire to “kill people.”
Some of his Google searches included broad, generic terms, like “murder” or “shooting people.” Others indicated he sought information on specific mass shootings and the people who carried them out. He also searched for a map of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which he’d been expelled, and for information on “how long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting.” And on YouTube, Cruz left comments like “Im going to be a professional school shooter,” and promised to “go on a killing rampage.”
As part of the prosecution’s case, family members of the victims were given the opportunity to take the stand and offer raw and emotional testimony about how Cruz’s actions had forever changed their lives. At one point, even members of Cruz’s own defense team were brought to tears.
“Our family is broken. There is this constant emptiness,” Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, testified.
“I feel I can’t truly be happy if I smile,” Schachter said. “I know that behind that smile is the sharp realization that part of me will always be sad and miserable because Alex isn’t here.”
But before the prosecution rested, jurors also visited the site of the massacre, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ 1200 building, which had been sealed since the shooting to preserve the crime scene – littered with dried blood, Valentine’s Day cards and students’ belongings – for the trial.
In their own case, the public defenders assigned to represent Cruz asked the jury to take into account his troubled history, from a dysfunctional family life to serious mental and developmental issues, with attorney Melissa McNeill describing him as a “damaged and wounded” person.
“His brain is broken,” she said. “He’s a damaged human being.”
Among the first witnesses was Cruz’s older sister, Danielle Woodard, who testified their mother, Brenda Woodard, used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him – something attorney Melissa McNeill said made his brain “irretrievably broken” through no fault of his own.
“She introduced me to a life that no child should be introduced to,” she said. “She had no regards for my life or his life.”
The defense also called teachers and educators who spoke to developmental issues and delays Cruz exhibited as a young child, including challenges with vocabulary and motor skills. Various counselors and psychiatrists also testified, offering their observations from years of treating or interacting with Cruz.
Former Broward County school district counselor John Newnham testified Cruz’s academic achievements in elementary school were below expectations. Cruz would describe himself as “stupid” and a “freak,” Newnham said.
Despite these apparent issues, Cruz’s adoptive mother, the late Lynda Cruz, was reluctant to seek help, according to the testimony of a close friend who lived down the street from the family, Trish Devaney Westerlind.
Newnham’s testimony echoed that: While Lynda Cruz was a caring mother, after the death of her husband, she would ask for help but not use the support available.
“She was overwhelmed,” Newnham said. “She appeared to lack some of the basic foundations of positive parenting.”
Westerlind still accepts calls from Cruz and, says though he’s in his 20s, Cruz still talks like an 11-year-old child.
Cruz’s attorneys acknowledged as he grew older he developed a fascination with firearms, and school staff raised concerns about his behavior to authorities, McNeill said.
In June 2014, an adolescent psychiatrist and a school therapist at the school Cruz attended at the time wrote a letter to an outside psychiatrist treating Cruz, in which they expressed concern Cruz had become verbally aggressive and had a “preoccupation with guns” and “dreams of killing others.”
The psychiatrist, Dr. Brett Negin, who testified he treated Cruz between the ages of 13 and 18, said he never received the letter.
The defense’s case came to an unexpected end last month when – having called just 26 of 80 planned witnesses – public defenders assigned to represent Cruz abruptly rested, leading the judge to admonish the team for what she said was unprofessionalism, resulting in a courtroom squabble between her and the defense (the jury was not present).
Scherer went on to question Cruz about the decision to rest, making sure he had an opportunity to discuss it with his lawyers and understood it meant no one else, including his brother Zachary Cruz, would take the stand in his defense.
“Are you comfortable with the decision?” Scherer asked.
“Yes,” Cruz replied.
Defense attorneys would later file a motion to disqualify the judge for her comments, arguing in part they suggested the judge was not impartial and Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been undermined. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”
Scherer ultimately denied the motion.
Prosecutors then presented their rebuttal, concluding last week following a three-day delay attributed to Hurricane Ian.
As part of the rebuttal, one former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student testified Cruz had a backpack with a swastika drawn on it, along with the n-word and other explicit language.
Separately, clinical neuropsychologist Denney testified Cruz was “trying to look bad” in tests Denney administered to the shooter in March.
“Mr. Cruz is grossly exaggerating his self-report, in terms of severe psychiatric problems, severe memory problems, cognitive issues, physical problems – he is exaggerating all of it,” Denney testified.